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When Liam O'Flaherty wrote his short story "The Sniper," it was within the context of the brutal conflict being waged in Ireland between Catholics and Protestants, the latter seeking to retain Northern Ireland's status as part of Great Britain, the former determined to rid Ireland of English Protestantism and to break Britain's hold on its smaller, weaker neighbor. "The Sniper" takes place in Dublin, the capital of Ireland. It is summer. O'Flaherty describes the scene as "twilight," when the city "lay enveloped in darkness, but for the dim light of the moon that shone through fleecy clouds . . ." The action takes place on Dublin's rooftops, where snipers from both sides in the conflict lie in wait for targets to appear. Because of the darkness and the endless obstructions characteristic of urban cityscapes, visibility is extremely limited, and the unconventional nature of the conflict -- urban guerrillas attired in regular civilian clothes rather than easily distinguishable military uniforms -- the potential for accidents ("friendly fire" being the euphamism commonly employed) is always high. Making that potential greater still is the fanaticism and determination to kill the enemy that permeates many fighters in a war. O'Flaherty describes his "protagonist" as young and determined:
"His face was the face of a student, thin and ascetic, but his eyes had the cold gleam of the fanatic. They were deep and thoughtful, the eyes of a man who is used to looking at death."
Wars are fought by the young, and "the sniper" is presumed to be just another irregular soldier in a civil conflict of indeterminate duration. But the tension is palpable, as O'Flaherty sets the stage by noting that "heavy guns roared. Here an there through the city, machine guns and rifles broke the silence of the night." The sniper is shot in the arm, adding to the tension and the difficulty of his task. He can no longer hold his rifle properly to aim and fire, so uses his revolver. Under the circumstances, that his victim in O'Flaherty's story is revealed as someone known to the sniper, while ironic, is perfectly consistent with the atmosphere in which "The Sniper" takes place.
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